Storyboard matters in studies because useful insights mean very little unless they can be woven into a compelling story. Critical insights which are not presented as a story, generally fail to get any traction at a client. In fact, that is one reason strategy studies collect dust on a client’s desk: they did not present a clear message.

When I was a corporate strategy partner, I pretty much drove teams a little crazy to constantly refine the story. I still do that. If you are following the US Retail Banking Study you would have seen us push for a crisp and compelling story. We do the same on the current power sector study. We just push and push for the best story out of the data. A great storyboard will get the client to act.

And that is what you want at the end of the day.

Where a storyboard fits in a strategy study

Boiled down to the basics, the strategy engagement structure can be explained as follows. First the key question team needs to answer in the engagement is determined. The key question has to be split into smaller questions in a logical format. This allows the team to develop a decision tree.

The decision tree has to meet two criteria. It has to be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE). There are two other criteria to be met and that is taught in our online strategy training program, though if you stick to the MECE rule that will be fine. Based on the decision tree, the hypotheses are developed.

The storyboard is the message engagement team delivers to the client, using the decision tree and hypotheses that has been developed, and it is based on the anticipated results of the study.

Next the team develops analyses to test each hypothesis. Based on the results of the analyses the hypotheses are proved or disproved and the storyboard is refined.

The diagram below shows a structure of a strategy study and a point at which the rough storyboard is developed. Although this diagram helps to understand how strategy engagements are conducted from the structural perspective, keep in mind that a strategy engagement is an iterative process and can be messy. In fact, it is usually messy.

Finally, the idea of using an objective function works in almost all types of strategy and operations engagements, but does not work in corporate strategy. In corporate strategy a very different approach is used because those engagements are different. That will be covered in a different article since corporate strategy studies are so rare.

storyboard in strategy study

What is a storyboard

To explain the management consulting storyboard concept, lets use an example from the animation industry. Before producing detailed animations and more, the animation team must first agree on the story.

The animation team gathers together in a room and takes blank pieces of A4 paper, they write out a short 10-word description of a scene on the top of the page and produce a rough 15-second pencil sketch to outline the animation which could go into this part of the movie.

In all, they can produce about 30 to 120 such A4 pages, stick them on a wall in sequence and everyone will be able to follow the story. This allows the animation team to debate the story and messaging without expensive animation work which would definitely change as the story changes.

To extend this analogy to a management consulting storyboard, the team needs to prepare a story of their message so that everyone in the team can understand their thinking and provide feedback. The management consulting storyboard is basically the headlines of the presentation which summarize the anticipated results from the work stream or from the entire strategy study.

Question from a reader about developing a storyboard

To dig deeper into the concept of developing a storyboard, I will answer a question we received from a reader, lets call him Henry.

Henry was avidly following the life blog on a study we did in the United States, where we were helping one of the largest Latin American banks to put together a strategy to enter the profitable, large and rapidly growing US financial services market. The study was focused around providing financing to low income entrepreneurs, either immigrants or US citizens.

We had been live blogging the study so everything we did you could follow it in real time and we spent a lot of time discussing what we were putting together. Fascinating work. It is definitely a new way to teach strategy consulting and tends to be very popular.

Henry wrote:

Michael, what you are doing is very interesting but one thing I don’t understand is how is it that you are able to come up with a storyboard for the client only in the beginning of your 3rd week of a 8 to 10 week strategy study?

This kind of seems to me as if you are giving a client a solution that you already have versus relying on the analysis to tell you what the answer will be. And isn’t that the criticism that consultants get that they don’t really develop new ideas for clients but put out what they already know? It does not make any sense to me so I am not sure how it can be right.

I can understand the reader’s confusion but he is wrong and I want to explain why he is wrong.

Piece of advice on how to communicate

First I want to point out one thing about this guy’s communication style. And, to be fair, many people have this style of communicating so it is worthwhile to address it here.

Henry is basically saying, “I don’t understand something. And because I don’t understand it, it must be wrong“. This is a really bad way to communicate.

It is extremely naïve or egotistical, or arrogant, you pick, to assume that if there is something you don’t understand then it must be wrong. For all you know, it may make perfect sense but you don’t have the necessary mindset or the necessary prerequisite knowledge to understand it.

If you don’t understand, it is better to say, “Look, I am sure it makes sense. I don’t actually get it so I will let you try it out and maybe I will get it later.” But don’t make it sound that if you don’t understand it then there is something wrong with the actual work.

It is just not appropriate. It sounds really bad to clients, superiors and colleagues when you do it. You sound like a 5 year old child.

How we could come up with a storyboard in such a short time

Besides that piece of advice on how to communicate, lets get into how we were able to write a storyboard in such a short time.

Note that anything that I will be able to teach you here will be at a high level. You can learn these concepts in depth as you go through our strategy training. How to develop a storyboard and other strategy capabilities is also taught in our book “Succeeding as a Management Consultant“.

Now lets address how we were able to come up with the storyboard so early.

Think about the logic here. We are not doing analysis just because we have to do it. We are doing analysis because we are trying to answer some questions.

If you just doing the analysis because this is the analysis you always do in a strategy study (e.g. market segmentation, cost effectiveness and revenue analysis), then yes, you have to wait for the analysis to be done to see what the analysis will tell you.

But this is not the way we do things at elite strategy firms. We do the analysis for a reason and that is the fundamental mind shift you have to make.

We start off with the objective function. What is the problem we are trying to solve for the client? We then break that objective function into the direct drivers of the problem. We then continue breaking down those drivers until we get what looks like a Christmas tree, that is actually a decision tree.

The objective function is the apex of the tree and the tree breaks out. We then prioritize the branches that are most important in the decision tree to help us figure out where to spend most of our time (refer to the exhibit below for an example).

decision tree_management consulting_storyboard

For each of those prioritized branches we then say, “Ok, what is the hypothesis to explain why this is the issue impacting the objective function?”.

Once we have the hypotheses, we can then say, “Hey, if this is the hypotheses, what tests do we need to do to prove or disprove the hypotheses?”.

Those tests then become the analyses.

We do the analysis which directly help us answer the hypotheses, which directly helps us determine if each of the prioritized branches should in fact be prioritized and, therefore, what drives the objective function.

So even before we finish the analysis, because we know why we doing the analysis, we can say, “Ok, if the analysis turns out to be this, what is the message we will give to the client?”.

For each analysis you probably will have one or two, at most 3, possible outcomes. Rather than writing a storyboard for each outcome, we write a storyboard for what we think is the most likely outcome. And then, if the analyses turn out to be a little bit different than we expected, obviously the storyboard will be revised.

But more or less we don’t turn out to be wrong. We turn out to be right most of the time because of the logic we apply and because we are attacking the problem from so many angles that this allows us to cross reference and cross check things.

And that is the crucial point here. We don’t just do analysis for the sake of doing it. And, therefore, we don’t have to wait to see what the analysis is telling us. The analysis is being done to check certain hypotheses that we developed at the start of the study. And the hypotheses are not random. They are built off the decision tree, which is also not random because the decision tree is actually brainstorming the issues which are driving the objective function.

And this is the important difference in which elite firms do analysis. We don’t just decide, “Ok, this is the checklist of analysis we need to do, lets do it”.

We say, “Hey, hold on a second, why are we doing the analysis? What purpose does it serve?”. In our mind we are developing the storyboard which states if these are the issues and this is the way the issues turn out in the analysis, then this is the recommendation we give to the client.

We can write that storyboard in the first, second or third week. And once we complete the analysis, we can go back and check if the storyboard we wrote out, based on what we thought the analysis will turn out to be, makes sense.

And if it does not, we will revise the storyboard. But I can tell you right now, 80-90% of the storyboard usually turns out to be correct. The more and more you think about it, even 95% of it could turn out to be correct.

By the 3rd week of the study, the storyboard is more or less there. Yes, few things will change. The data will definitely change. For example, we may know that certain segment of the market is unprofitable, but likely will not know why it is unprofitable or by how much it is unprofitable. But we more or less will be able to figure out it is unprofitable.

So that explains how we are able to come up with the storyboard so early. Because we are not doing analysis for the sake of doing it but because we have a reason for doing it, and the reason allows us to structure the storyboard.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What challenges will you face in applying this technique in a corporate or tier-2 firm? Please let us know in the comments.

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8 responses to Storyboard Development in Strategy Engagements

  1. Thanks Mat,

    You are right. In fact, with so many alternative sources and potential for data overload, there is an even greater need to use better structure to eliminate necessary analyses.


  2. Thanks Michael,

    continuing the data thread, now a lots of data is publicly available. If it is not accessible from the source (for whatever reasons), the estimation can be pretty close. Of course this is driven by having proper estimating techniques AND creativity when it comes to data sourcing.

    For example, LinkedIn profiles, Glassdoor company reviews and even newsletters can be a great source of data, e.g. needed to benchmark competitors.

  3. Hi Raymond,

    That is very good.

    However, you do not even need to be complimentary, you just need to avoid appearing condescending.


  4. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for another great article.

    On your comment about communication, should Henry have phrased it closer to the following?

    “Michael, the storyboard technique is interesting and definitely has its merits. However, I am unfamiliar with the thought process you had behind creating storyboards at an early phase of the project. Would you mind walking me through your thoughts?”


  5. Thanks Mat,

    On the focus on collecting data, I think there is a different way to look at this. There are many consultants and executives who already have access to the data they would need for any studies they are doing. This approach merely helps them make better use of it.

    It is not as if we had it any easier at the firm. Clients routinely did not give use the data we wanted and we needed to adjust the analyses. It was, is and is going to be that way forever. Therefore, the lack of data is not a serious impediment. You just have to work around it.


  6. Hi Michael,

    I agree with both of your points. Storyboarding might help build credibility, and help to stand out. But it is a valid observation, that it has to be shown as a final product. This is because, for one, corporations I had worked with, did not embrace the culture of sharing as much as elite management consulting companies.

    Second, I stand corrected. I made a leap of logic, meaning one HAS TO test the hypotheses, thus the tests are required to complete a storyboard.

    From personal experience, I recall receiving requested five years of sales and financial data in pdfs as images (not searchable). It required printing, scanning (to pdf again) and OCRing them in order to put them in excel.

    Building upon the cultural point, it would require a great amount of leadership effort to shift a culture from “this data is my property” to “let’s share as much as possible”.

    This is also one of the main reasons ERP class systems are implemented.

    I would really like someone from Deloitte et al. to chime in and comment about their approach to storyboarding.

    Kind regards,

  7. Hi Mat,

    These are good points. I would point out that no one needs to see this planning. This is something you should do by yourself and only share the results when it is ready. This will avoid the thought-leader label. Also, do not underestimate a storyboard. Often times senior management likes that a logical story does in fact exist since they do not see it that often.

    On the second point, I would like to offer a correction. Building a storyboard does not require testing hypotheses. The storyboard MUST be built before the hypotheses are tested, but it can only be finalized AFTER the hypotheses are tested.

    I agree though. Getting data will be tough. Though the flip side to this is making decisions without data which is equally bad.

    As consultants, we also rarely get the data we need and always adapt the analyses to work with the data we actually can obtain. I have never personally been on or led a study where the data we needed arrived as requested. It never happens.

    Hope that helps.


  8. I like the idea of a corresponding article and a podcast, as people have different preferences in absorbing information.

    Responding to the question of storyboarding from a corporate perspective, the two difficulties come to mind.

    First, it is the lack of analytical/scientific method approach when it comes to business problems. It is often perceived as too academic, and throw-and-see-what-sticks approach is rewarded, despite its randomness. The latter approach is rewarded by being perceived as a “doer” as opposed to “thinker”. And being labeled as a “thought leader” in a corporation does not get you any points.

    Second, building a storyboard requires testing hypotheses, and for this one needs internal data. This data might be protected from internal access for many reasons, including turf wars, or projected lack of objectivity. This is where consultants’ neutrality comes into play.

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